How to be a great communicator

The best way to manage is to adapt your management style to your staff.

Similarly, the most effective way to communicate is to adapt your communication style to the person with whom you are communicating...

...whether that is your boss, a colleague, a supplier, a client, or a staff member.

One of the most subtle but powerful ways to do this is to consider whether your audience are visual, auditory, kinaesthetic or even olfactory or gustatory.

What are these communication styles, and how can you use them to best effect in the workplace?

In the 1970s, two researchers undertook a project trying to understand what was behind the effectiveness of some of the foremost therapists of the day.

They were trying to work out what made them so good at communicating with people - which is the essence of being a successful therapist.

One of these was a woman called Virginia Satir, who was a world-renowned family therapist.

Over time, they noticed that she had a particular way of adapting her communication style to her audience.

  • With some people, she would say, “I feel that was a significant moment for you”.

  • With others, it was “I can see that would be very difficult”.

  • And with others it would be “I hear what you’re saying”.

What was the difference?

The verbs she was using.

She was choosing to communicate with her clients with more of an emphasis on one of the five senses.

And they noticed that the sense she was choosing was the same one that they were mainly using in their language - she was reflecting their language back to them.

And this seemed to be part of the reason why she was so successful at building productive relationships with her clients through communication: she was literally speaking their language.

The researchers concluded that different people engage with the world using a different primary sense.

  • For some, it’s all about how they feel - they are kinaesthetic.

  • For others, it’s all about what they see - they are visual.

  • For others, what they hear is most important - they are auditory.

  • For still others, although less commonly, it is what they taste or smell (“it left a bad taste in my mouth”; “that smells fishy to me”).

Although everyone uses all of them to some degree, generally people have a preference towards one approach.

If you are spoken to in the language of your favoured approach, you are more likely to feel a bond with that person, to feel understood, and respond positively to the communication.

So how can we apply this to the workplace?

1. Listen

First, notice the clues that the other person is giving you.

When they are describing a situation, what language are they mainly using?

Is it “I felt the urgency” or “I saw the need for” or “I heard the importance of what they were saying”?

Or if they are describing a personal experience, like a holiday, what language are they mainly using?

“It was so good to feel the sunshine!” “the views were amazing!” “I couldn’t believe the peace and quiet!”

With careful listening, you will be able to identify which approach is their favourite.

2. Reflect

Once you have identified it, you can start to reflect the same approach back to them.

This doesn’t need to be laboured!

It can be a very simple change of language.

For example, when feeding back to a staff member who has just presented some work to you, you have three options:

  • “I can see you’ve been working very hard” vs

  • “I can hear the effort you’ve put into this” vs

  • “I can feel your commitment to the project”

They all mean the same thing, but are expressed slightly differently.

And that difference will be noticed unconsciously by your staff member, and they will feel even more rewarded by that feedback, if it uses the best language for them.

Or in another example, if you are negotiating terms with a client, you have three options:

  • “I feel that we would work really well together” vs

  • “From this, it looks like we would work really well together” vs

  • “This all tells me that we would work really well together”.

Again, subtle differences, but ones that can make a big impact.

So there you have a method to adapt your communication to the audience with whom you are communicating - to get the best possible results.

Good luck!


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Things to do and consider

  1. What is your favoured communication style? Ask someone to do an exercise with you. Ask them to describe a favourite memory - maybe a moment when they were on holiday somewhere. Which words do they mainly use: are they feeling, hearing, or seeing words?

  2. Once you’ve discovered their language (and explained this concept to them), as them to listen to you doing the same thing. What do you both notice? Or if you’d rather do this alone, record yourself recalling a favourite memory, and then play it back.

  3. What is your boss’s favoured communication style? In your next interactions, see if you can identify your boss’s dominant sense, and practice using language that reflects. What difference do you notice?